BERWICK – Township of North Stormont Coun. Roxane Villeneuve has been officially sanctioned following a second code of conduct investigation.
During the municipality’s Aug. 10 council meeting, integrity commissioner Tony Fleming outlined his findings concerning complaints made against Villeneuve in November 2020 and presented recommendations for appropriate action. With Coun. Randy Douglas absent from the meeting, it was left to Mayor Jim Wert, Deputy Mayor François Landry, and Coun. Steve Densham to determine Villeneuve’s fate. They voted in favour of a communication blackout barring Villeneuve from corresponding directly with municipal staff for the duration of the council term, as well as a 45-day remuneration suspension.
“The only decision council is afforded under the Municipal Act is to decide how the report will be made public, and whether to adopt any recommendations made by the integrity commissioner,” Fleming said in his written report directed to CAO Craig Calder. “Council does not have the authority to alter the findings of the report, only consider the recommendations.”
Fleming is the associate managing partner at Cunningham Swan Lawyers, as well as the supervising partner for the firm’s municipal law group. He is recognized by the Law Society of Upper Canada as a certified specialist in the fields of municipal and land use planning and development law. He currently sits as the integrity commissioner for more than 45 municipalities.
Villeneuve was accused of “engaging in recurring disrespectful behaviour toward the chief administrative officer of the township, publicizing confidential information about the CAO’s salary, and voting in a conflict of interest.” Fleming said he had found sufficient evidence that Villeneuve had contravened the code of conduct in only one of the three reported instances.
“According to the complainant, the member has repeatedly expressed her disagreement in a manner that is unreasonable, inappropriate, aggressive, intimidating, and harassing, thereby contravening her code of conduct obligation to behave respectfully and professionally toward staff,” Fleming noted in his report.
Fleming dealt with each allegation separately. He outlined the facts, provided an analysis of those facts, and provided a resulting determination.
“The penalty and sanction have failed to correct a serious concern with the manner in which Coun. Villeneuve deals with the CAO,” Fleming said. “In these circumstances, the integrity commissioner recommends that the penalty be increased to deter further repetition of the behaviour.”
Fleming’s recommendation included a 45-day suspension of remuneration, which is an increase from the previous sanction of 30 days in January 2020. In addition, Fleming recommended Villeneuve be directed not to communicate with the CAO for a period of nine months, except through the mayor. This was up from the January 2020 recommendation of six months.
“Our duty as council is to protect [employees],” Landry said. “There’s nothing to say it won’t happen again.”
He asked if it was possible to increase the nine months to cover the remainder of council’s term. Densham agreed, but said he felt the sanction should be extended to cover all of staff, not just Calder.
“This is simply a recommendation to council, so it’s certainly open to council to amend in any way they see fit,” Fleming said.
Villeneuve was given time to read a prepared statement before the final vote. She was interrupted at least once by each of her council colleagues, who voiced concern that the statement content might be a violation of the code of conduct. Villeneuve took aim at the allegations, the report, and its finding, as well as Fleming’s right to make those assessments, and concluded that she was being wrongfully and unfairly treated. She then threatened legal action if council voted to enforce sanctions.
“In the past, I did not pursue my legal alternatives to have the decision reviewed by the courts,” she said. “However, this time, if any penalty is imposed that does not conform with the provisions of the [Municipal] Act, I will pursue my legal remedies by appealing an improper decision.”
Fleming addressed Villeneuve’s comments against him, as well as the investigative process. He referred to specific sections of a variety of legal sources, including the Municipal Act, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and the township’s own code of conduct regulations. The report was accepted as presented with Landry, Wert, and Densham in agreement.
When it came to voting on the sanction, Landry moved to extend the blackout period to the end of term and to include all of staff. Densham seconded the motion, and Wert voted with them to make it official. Going forward, the mayor will act as the mediator with all interactions between Villeneuve and staff flowing through him. Villeneuve said she will pursue her legal alternatives.
“Nobody here has enjoyed this process tonight, but I think it’s important that everyone understand why this process is in place. The greatest asset as a municipality is our staff,” Wert said. “The point we’re making is our staff is imperative to the success of our municipality and they have to be respected.”
The eleven-page integrity commissioner’s report can be found in its entirety in council’s Aug. 10 agenda package. As promised during the council meeting, Villeneuve has posted her full prepared statement to her social media accounts.